Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympic Ideals Still Matter

Three billion human beings are watching the 2012 Olympic Games. They will view the beauty and power of the athletes and vicariously experience the anguish and glory of the athletes. They will root for and against, and sometimes have admiration ripped out of them by performances by athletes they did not support. Three billion people will celebrate human solidarity through Olympic ideals and practice.

At the same time a mini-industry of critics attack the Olympics for its inglorious hypocrisy and tawdry commercialism. The critics attack the endless sponsors; detractors bemoan the bribes and scandals about awarding Olympics and the gargantuan expenditures by countries to stage Olympics. Opponents decry the judging scandals and the political uses whether Hitler’s 1936 attempt at legitimacy, the boycotts of the Soviet Union and USA or the coming out party staged by China’s Olympics. Finally they will lament the win at all costs  mentality of individuals or nations that lead to chemical enhanced cheating whether muscle enhanced East German women or growth retarded Chinese divers or disgraced champions ranging from Marion Jones to Ben Johnson.

You know what? It does not matter. The scandals contribute to the greatness of the accomplishments because robust ideals fail all the time, but failure does not destroy their power.

Human ideals have many functions.
  •  They provide a vision to which people can aspire.
  •  A good ideal guides judgment.
  •  Ideals motivate people to organize attention and resources to pursue goals.
  •  They help humans to connect their lives to a project that individuals believe transcends their own individual selfishness.
  •  The best ideals provide moral resources to criticize actions and self correct in the name of getting better or closer to the idea.

Most worthy human endeavors are buttressed by ideals and grow through them even as people often fail to live up to them. Every professional practice such as law, engineering or medicine lives by this dynamic. A country like the United States exists as an imperfect pursuit of ideals.

Our own frailties and failures reinforce the importance and robustness of good ideals, and the Olympics represent very powerful and durable ideals. Yet the ideals live in the world we have created—London has six anti-aircraft sites to protect the games from terrorist and a huge drug testing apparatus employs hundreds of people. And yet we will watch because the ideals may be tarnished but remain beautiful.

The founding of the modern Olympics in 1896 had 214 athletes from 14 countries. Pierre de Coubertin who lead the effort believe fiercely that a reconstituted Olympics could reflect the “harmonious development of man,” and help build human peace just as the original Olympics built on a “truce” among the endlessly warring Greeks. Olympic virtues  would remind everyone that for humans “victory does not matter so much as the struggle.”

Here are six Olympic Ideals that remain true and robust in these imperfect games:

·      Olympians as Citizens
·      Competing from Desire and Love
·      Displaying Human Excellence
·      Merit and Inclusion
·      Ideals versus Imperfect Humanity
·      Human Solidarity

Olympians as Citizens:       Every athlete who reaches the Olympics achieves the pinnacle of achievement in their country or region. Being an OLYMPIAN brings great and deserved honor in itself that marks a person for life. An Olympian joins an elite citizenry of women and men who have worked hard, studied, competed and earned their position. An Olympian represents a form of human citizenship that everyone can celebrate.

Competing from Desire and Love:             98 percent of Olympians are not rich or extremely well off. Even state supported competitors live OK, but after the Olympics many will struggle to find a livelihood. Of the 36 Olympics sports, only basketball, tennis, soccer and sometimes volleyball  provide serious money as an occupation. Most Olympians hold their own jobs and scramble for sponsorship and support even as they compete in tournaments. These athletes carry on for the drive and joy of competing and for commitment to sports such as canoe, judo, shooting, trampoline, fencing or curling (woops, wrong season). These competitors pursue obscure sports with passion and skill because they love it and they enjoy winning and being the best. The Olympics vindicate and honor this pursuit.

Displaying Human Excellence                   The root meaning of athletics is struggle and achieving anything in life requires hard work, thinking and grappling with obstacles. The human condition is born in and lives through struggle; it embodies our challenge and nobility. DeCoubertin defended the morality of athletics and the Olympics upon the very French ideal that they epitomized triumphant struggle. Athletics paints a canvass where we watch and experience both the heart of struggle in competition but also the end product of superb achievement in physical and mental activities. People spend their entire lives to arrive at the Olympics, and the pinnacle offers the best that humanity can offer gathering in one place.

Merit and Inclusion             The Olympic ideal always sought inclusiveness “without discrimination” for all humans and countries to compete. This permitted self-criticism and gradually expanded to all the countries of the world but also expanded from men to women. Nonwestern sports such as judo and Taekwondo are now in competition. Nonwestern countries sponsor the games and regualry win medals. Often it meant not all athletes from their countries were the best of the best, but they represented the best of that country or region, and that was good enough. The best earn Olympic participation, and athletes in every part of the world can dream of being an Olympian.

Ideals versus Imperfect Humanity                        The critics are right, the Olympics are overly commercialized, can be distorted by politics and cost way too much, and people pursue them for mixed motives such as gaining endorsements or status in their own country. Right and so what? Humans have always been creatures of mixed motives, our very mixed motives and riven nature make the achievement of beauty and achievement in art, science, friendship and sports so remarkable. Very imperfect artists can create great art; great political achievements involve mixed motives and compromises; why should athletics be any different? The achievement through and despite our human frailties deserves respect and celebration.

Human solidarity                 For the original founders creating a liturgical stage for competition represented a means to a much deeper end--to encourage human solidarity. The Olympics for modern humanity as for ancient Greece can provide a sacramental space to celebrate the incarnation of our common and shared humanity. Like the achievements and methods of science, the achievements and method of sport transcend national and ethnic boundaries and permit us to honor and appreciate our common human embodiment and struggle.  The Olympic founders were deeply dedicated to the peace movement and believe athletics teaches that humans can compete and struggle other without hatred or becoming enemies.

In the first modern Olympics, they took the swimmers off the coast of Greece and dropped them in the Mediterranean Sea. The first winner claimed he was more concerned with keeping alive in the water than winning. That spirit still explains why the Olympic ideals matter.

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